Jack Allen, a working boatman on north west canals

Boat people lived in a closed community. Most boat people were born and brought up on the canals and they tended to marry boat people, possibly nobody else fancied the life and hard work! Some did take jobs on dry land, especially when trading was collapsing in the ‘fifties, but few non boat people decided to work the canals.


Jack Allen came from a big boating family. The Allens and Deakins worked in the North West of England on the Bridgewater Canal and River Weaver; uncles, aunts, parents, grandparents, great grand parents! Jack was a good talker with an amazing memory! Jack died on 17 July 1999 and sadly most of his memories went with him, but here’s just a taste.

“I was born in 1920 on the coal boat Mabel belonging to West Leigh collieries, I was actually born three foot six under water – because at the time the boat was loaded! I grew up on the boats, but from five or six onwards I sometimes used to stay with relatives for a bit to go to school, what little bit of school we may have. I spent a month or so with my gran going to Barnton school (Near Northwich) and, before my great grandfather died, I spent a little time living up at Hill Top and I went to Little Leigh school. I’ve been to school in Liverpool, I’ve been to school in Burscough, I’ve been to school in the midlands, I’ve been to school everywhere. But from eight onwards I worked on the boats.”

Jack Allen
Jack Allen

“My dad was badly wounded in the 1914-18 war, so I more or less was the man of the family. He taught me a lot and relied on me a lot. As far as horseflesh was concerned, judging horses, I was buying and selling horses when I was nine years old! That was the education that the boat lads got, learning rope work, paint work, roses and castles, pricings so forth. We was lent out a lot, today they’ve got a posh name for it, fostered, but we was lent out to bleeding work for our keep! I’ve been lent out to more families than I can remember.”

“This is a funny story, you take it or leave it, but this fellow here didn’t like the moon. Our Tommy, his name was (photo on right). Thomas was half shire, belonged to my father, and if ever we were working all night, and the moon happened to be shining, especially in the canal, Tommy would go in after it! It’s true! The last time he went in as I can remember was the end of 1938, something like that, and we was working all night. It was my job to walk behind the horse and we were near where Kellogg’s is ( Manchester on the Bridgewater Canal), and – this was boat life – there used to be a big market garden and I used to take a corn bag and help myself as the boats was travelling along. So, soon as I got through Taylors bridge my dad gave me the corn bag. Even in the pitch black I knew where everything was.”

“When I got back out of the market garden my mum says to me, I’ve made a brew (pot of tea). This is about 2 o’ clock in the morning and the bloody moon’s out isn’t it. So I gets on the boat and has my brew and I sat in the cabin. My dad says, come on matey. I says, what’s up? He’s seen the bloody moon, he says. I said, oh he’ll be alright. Sploosh! Now you imagine from Kellogg’s to the red bridges before the tank (Barton Aqueduct). There’s a getting-out place there with steps, you used to have to take the boards out, and I had to swim him from Kellogg’s to there get him out. The bugger, he swum and he walked and swum and walked. There were places were I tried to jump him out but he wouldn’t. Must have been nearly a mile!”

“And that was the fella that hated the moon.”

Horse Boat Tommy
Horse Boat Tommy

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